Combinatorial Capacity

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Human language uses a fixed set of meaningful elements (morphemes or words/signs) to produce an open-ended set of meaningful combinations of these elements (words/signs or phrases and sentences). [N.B. this particular definition of “combinatorial capacity” is sometimes referred to as “productivity” (1) or as “recursion” (2), which is defined differently here (cf. “Recursion”).] In primate alarm call systems, the repertoire of elements associated with different predator types is already extremely limited (often to just two or three). (3,4,5) Documented combinations are even more limited and appear to consist of simple juxtaposition of call types. In primate long call systems (and whalesong and birdsong), the combinatorics appear more open-ended by virtue of the duration of the vocalization (as long as 30-40 minutes), but there is as of yet no good evidence for stable associations of any of the individual elements of long call sequences with real-world situations.(6) Despite the apparent success of language-trained apes in acquiring aspects of symbolic and displaced reference, they to date appear incapable of combining the symbols that they may learn in any meaningful way that exhibits stable mappings and internal structure independent of the structure available in trainer input. (7,8) That said, several animal species (bonobos, parrots, border collies, dolphins) have been trained to respond appropriately to commands that incorporate language-like or even linguistic combinatorics. (9)

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  1. Campbell's monkeys concatenate vocalizations into context-specific call sequences., Ouattara, Karim, Lemasson Alban, and Zuberbühler Klaus , Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A, 2009 Dec 22, Volume 106, Issue 51, p.22026-31, (2009)
  2. A syntactic rule in forest monkey communication, Zuberbühler, Klaus , Animal Behaviour, Volume 63, p.293 - 299, (2002)
  3. The faculty of language: what is it, who has it, and how did it evolve?, Hauser, M. D., Chomsky N., and Fitch W. T. , Science, 11/2002, Volume 298, Issue 5598, p.1569-79, (2002)
  4. Language Comprehension in Ape and Child, Savage-Rumbaugh, E. S., Murphy J., Sevcik R. A., Brakke K. E., Williams S., Rumbaugh D. M., and Bates E. , Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, Volume 58, p.i-252, (1993)
  5. Grammatical combination in Pan paniscus: Processes of learning and invention in the evolution and development of language, Greenfield, P. M., and Savage-Rumbaugh E.S. , "Language” and intelligence in monkeys and apes: comparative developmental perspectives, p.540-578, (1990)
  6. A Phonological Analysis of Male Gibbon Singing Behavior, Mitani, J. C., and Marler P. , Behaviour, Volume 109, p.20-45, (1989)
  7. Monkey responses to three different alarm calls: evidence of predator classification and semantic communication., Seyfarth, R M., Cheney D L., and Marler P , Science, 1980 Nov 14, Volume 210, Issue 4471, p.801-3, (1980)
  8. Can an ape create a sentence?, Terrace, H S., Petitto L A., Sanders R J., and Bever T G. , Science, 1979 Nov 23, Volume 206, Issue 4421, p.891-902, (1979)
  9. The Origin of Speech, Hockett, C. , Scientific American, Volume 203, Issue 3, p.88-96, (1960)